Water Spirit Legends

Yorkshire Legends and Traditions of Wells (England)

Springs and wells of water have, in all lands and in all ages, been greatly valued, and in some regarded with a feeling of veneration little, if at all, short of worship.

They have yielded their treasure to the sustenance and refreshment of man and beast, as age after age of the world's history has passed along, and have been centers around which village story and gossip have gathered for generation after generation. Little wonder, therefore, is it that legends and traditions abound concerning them. These are often extremely local, and therefore little known.

The names alone, however, suggest much. The memory of the mythical gods, satyrs, and nymphs of the ancient heathen times lingers in a few, as in Thors-kil or Thors-well, in the parish of Burnsall; and in the almost universal declaration — by which not over-wise parents seek to deter children from playing in dangerous proximity to a well — that at the bottom, under the water, wells a mysterious being, usually named Jenny Green-teeth or Peg-o'-the-Well, who will certainly drag into the water any child who approaches too near to it.

The tokens of medieval reverence for wells are abundant. The names of the saints to whom the wells were dedicated yet cling to them. "There is scarcely a well of consequence in the United Kingdom," says the editor of Lancashire Folk-lore, "which has not been solemnly dedicated to some saint in the Roman calendar."

Thus in Yorkshire we have Our Lady's Well or Lady Well, St. Helen's Well (very numerous), St. Margaret's Well at Burnsall, St. Bridget's Well near Ripon, St. Mungo's Well at Copgrove, St. John's Well at Beverley, St. Alkelda's Well at Middleham, etc. Dr. Whitaker remarks that the wells of Craven, which bear the names of saints, are invariably presided over by females, as was the case with wells under the pagan ritual, in which nymphs exclusively enjoyed the same honor.

The Mermaid Wife (Shetland Islands)

A story is told of an inhabitant of Unst, who, in walking on the sandy margin of a voe, saw a number of mermen and mermaids dancing by moonlight, and several sealskins strewed beside them on the ground. At his approach they immediately fled to secure their garbs, and, taking upon themselves the form of seals, plunged immediately into the sea. But as the Shetlander perceived that one skin lay close to his feet, he snatched it up, bore it swiftly away, and placed it in concealment.

On returning to the shore he met the fairest damsel that was ever gazed upon by mortal eyes, lamenting the robbery, by which she had become an exile from her submarine friends, and a tenant of the upper world. Vainly she implored the restitution of her property; the man had drunk deeply of love, and was inexorable; but he offered her protection beneath his roof as his betrothed spouse. The merlady, perceiving that she must become an inhabitant of the earth, found that she could not do better than accept of the offer.

This strange attachment subsisted for many years, and the couple had several children. The Shetlander's love for his merwife was unbounded, but his affection was coldly returned. The lady would often steal alone to the desert strand, and, on a signal being given, a large seal would make his appearance, with whom she would hold, in an unknown tongue, an anxious conference.

Years had thus glided away, when it happened that one of the children, in the course of his play, found concealed beneath a stack of corn a seal's skin; and, delighted with the prize, he ran with it to his mother. Her eyes glistened with rapture — she gazed upon it as her own — as the means by which she could pass through the ocean that led to her native home. She burst forth into an ecstasy of joy, which was only moderated when she beheld her children, whom she was now about to leave; and, after hastily embracing them, she fled with all speed towards the seaside.

The husband immediately returned, learned the discovery that had taken place, ran to overtake his wife, but only arrived in time to see her transformation of shape completed — to see her, in the form of a seal, bound from the ledge of a rock into the sea. The large animal of the same kind with whom she had held a secret converse soon appeared, and evidently congratulated her, in the most tender manner, on her escape. But before she dived to unknown depths, she cast a parting glance at the wretched Shetlander, whose despairing looks excited in her breast a few transient feelings of commiseration.

"Farewell!" said she to him "and may all good attend you. I loved you very well when I resided upon earth, but I always loved my first husband much better."

Water Demons (Scotland)

In many of the deep pools of the streams and rivers guardian-demons were believed to reside, and it was dangerous to bathe in them.

Sometimes, when a castle or mansion was being sacked, a faithful servant or two contrived to rescue the plate chest, and to cast it into a deep pool in the nearest stream.

On one occasion a diver was got to got to the bottom of such a pool to fetch up the plate of the neighboring castle. He dived, saw the plate chest, and was preparing to lift it, when the demon ordered him to go to the surface at once, and not to come back. At the same time the demon warned him that, if he did come back, he would forfeit his life. The diver obeyed. When he reached the bank he told what he had seen, and what he had heard.

By dint of threats and promises of large reward, he dived again. In a moment or two afterwords his heart and lungs rose and floated on the surface of the water. They had been torn out by the demon of the pool.

Brauhard's Mermaid (Germany)

Many years ago a man named Brauhard lived in Lauterberg. He had been far away across the water and had brought home a mermaid, whom he married. Her top half was human, but her bottom half was formed like a fish. She lived in a tub in his house. However, his friends could not stand the malformed woman, and so they finally poisoned her. He did not remarry, and he contributed the money he had received as her dowry to the poor. That is the source of the Brauhard Account which to this day is administered by the Scharzfeld Jurisdiction for the support of the poor in the surrounding villages.

The Water Maid (Germany)

At the time when there was nothing in the Harz but virgin forest, a knight came here to hunt. Before he could orient himself, he became lost, and he wandered about for several days without finding a path.

Finally he came upon a beautiful castle situated in a large meadow and surrounded with water. A pathway led to a drawbridge, which had been suspended.

He called out; he whistled; he waited. He didn't hear anything from within. It was as though the castle had died out.

"Wait," he thought. "The castle cannot be empty. Someone will have to appear shortly. Just sit here and wait until someone comes." So he sat and waited, but the castle remained silent. Finally his patience wore out, and he was just making preparations to leave when he saw a beautiful girl emerge from the forest and walk toward the bridge.

"Wait," he thought. "She knows her way around here. She is going inside." And that is what happened. When she was within a few steps of him, he spoke to her, telling her that he had lost his way in the Harz Forest, that he had camped out eight days in the open, and that he was eager at last to spend a night under a proper roof. He had already sat here for three hours asking for admission, but no one had shown himself or let himself be heard. Further, he asked if she would be so good to ask permission for him to enter once she was inside.

She said that that would not be necessary. He could come with her. She did not need to ask anyone for permission, for she herself was in charge here. With that she stepped on a stone that was mortared into the earth in front of the bridge, and the bridge immediately descended. Then she took out a large key and unlocked the gate. Together they walked though a large courtyard and into the castle.

She led the knight into a beautiful room and asked him to make himself comfortable. She told him that before anything else, she wanted to go and prepare a proper evening meal. Surely he would like something hot to eat, she said, adding that she too was hungry. Because she had no servants, she would have to take care of everything by herself.

With that she left the room. A short time later she returned with a beautiful roast, cakes, and many other delicious things. She set the table and invited her guest to help himself. He did not need to be asked a second time.

After they had eaten, they sat together and talked with one another. The knight said that he felt sorry for the friendly girl, because she lived here all alone, observing that time must pass very slowly for her.

"Oh no," she said. "Time does not pass slowly for me," adding that nonetheless she sometimes did wish for company, but if she did not have any, she could still manage just fine.

The knight answered that if she did not mind, he would stay here a few days and keep her company.

The hostess replied that she would be happy if he would do so.

The guest remained one, two, three days, and they became so accustomed to one another that in the end the knight asked her if she did not want to become his wife. The girl was pleased with this, and she said that she would love to do so, if he would only promise her that every Friday she would be able to go out and do whatever she wanted to, and that he would not try to follow her or look after her. This he promised her, and they became a couple.

They lived together a long time, satisfied with one another. They produced lovely children, and in their happiness they lacked nothing.

One day a strange knight came and was given lodging. It was on a Friday, and he asked about the lady of the house, because she had not made an appearance. The master of the house told him that his wife was never to be seen on a Friday, and that he — in keeping with his promise — had never sought after her. With that the strange knight asked what kind of a housewife would not tell her husband where she could be found. Nothing good could come from such behavior.

This conversation so alarmed the master of the house that he immediate set out to find his wife. After a long search, he finally came to the cellar, where he found a door. Opening it, he saw his wife, half fish and half human, swimming in a small pond. When she saw her husband, she cast a sad and serious glance at him, and then disappeared.

The bewildered man went back upstairs to tell the strange knight what he had experience, but he too had disappeared. Now the poor man realized that he and his wife had been cruelly deceived and victimized by the stranger.

He grieved so much for his good wife that he died soon afterward. The lovely children also died one after the other, and the castle fell into ruins. It is not even known where it formerly stood. Only the story remains.

Lorelei (Germany)

Her beauty was her undoing. Lorelei was not willfully seductive, but men could not resist her charms, and she could not resist their advances. She was bringing scandal and disgrace to the respectable town of Bacharach-on-the-Rhine.

There was even talk that she must be a witch or a woman possessed of the devil. The bishop, however, would not hear of an execution without due process, and he summoned her to his court. His questions were at first stern and severe. Her answers were simple and sincere. The bishop's severity, his piety, and his priesthood, however, did not prevail, and in the end he pronounced her free of all guilt.

"I cannot continue like this!" she cried. "My eyes are the destruction of every man who looks into them. I have loved only one man, and he abandoned me and left for a distant land. Please let me die!"

But the good bishop could not bring himself to pronounce a death sentence. Instead, he proposed that she dedicate herself to God, and called three knights to accompany her to the convent. Arrangements were made forthwith, and the three knights were soon underway with their beautiful ward.

When their path led them past a high cliff overlooking the Rhine, Lorelei had one last request of her escorts. "Please," she said, "let me climb the cliff and have one last look into the Rhine." Unable to deny her this wish, the three knights tethered their horses, and the four of them climbed to the top of the cliff.

Standing at the edge of the precipice, Lorelei said, "See that boat on the Rhine. The boatman is my lover!" And with no further warning, she jumped from the cliff into the Rhine.

The three knights also met their death there, without a priest and without a grave.

Who is the singer of this song?
A boatman on the Rhine,
And we always hear the echo
Of the Three-Knight-Stone:
Lorelei
Lorelei
Lorelei
As though there were three of us.

Melusina (Germany)

In Bringen during a wind storm they say that "Melusina is crying for her children." This must be true, because otherwise on Christmas Eve, at which time one is supposed to eat nine kinds of food, they would not shake the leftovers from the tablecloth onto a bush so that Melusina, sometimes also known as St. Melusina, might also have something to eat.

The Merrow (Ireland)

The Merrow, or if you write it in the Irish, Moruadh or Murrghach, from muir, sea, and oigh, a maid, is not uncommon, they say, on the wilder coasts. The fishermen do not like to see them, for it always means coming gales.

The male Merrows have green teeth, green hair, pig's eyes, and red noses; duck-like scale between their fingers.

Sometimes they prefer, small blame to them, good-looking fishermen to their sea lovers. Near Bantry in the last century, there is said to have been a woman covered all over with scales like a fish, who was descended from such a marriage. Sometimes they come out of the sea, and wander about the shore in the shape of little hornless cows.

They have, when in their own shape, a red cap, called a cohullen druith, usually covered with feathers. If this is stolen, they cannot again go down under the waves. Red is the color of magick in every country, and has been so from the very earliest times. The caps of fairies and magickians are well-nigh always red.

The Water Snake (Russia)

There was once an old woman who had a daughter; and her daughter went down to the pond one day to bathe with the other girls. They all stripped off their shifts, and went into the water. Then there came a snake out of the water, and glided on to the daughter's shift. After a time the girls all came out, and began to put on their shifts, and the old woman's daughter wanted to put on hers, but there was the snake lying on it. She tried to drive him away, but there he stuck and would not move. Then the snake said, "If you'll marry me, I'll give you back your shift."

Now she wasn't at all inclined to marry him, but the other girls said, "As if it were possible for you to be married to him! Say you will!"

So she said, "Very well, I will." Then the snake glided off from the shift, and went straight into the water. The girl dressed and went home. And as soon as she got there, she said to her mother, "Mammie, mammie, thus and thus, a snake got upon my shift, and says he, 'Marry me or I won't let you have your shift;' and I said, 'I will.'"

"What nonsense are you talking, you little fool! as if one could marry a snake!" And so they remained just as they were, and forgot all about the matter.

A week passed by, and one day they saw ever so many snakes, a huge troop of them, wriggling up to their cottage. "Ah, mammie, save me, save me!" cried the girl, and her mother slammed the door and barred the entrance as quickly as possible. The snakes would have rushed in at the door, but the door was shut; they would have rushed into the passage, but the passage was closed. Then in a moment they rolled themselves into a ball, flung themselves at the window, smashed it to pieces, and glided in a body into the room. The girl got upon the stove, but they followed her, pulled her down, and bore her out of the room and out of doors. Her mother accompanied her, crying like anything.

They took the girl down to the pond, and dived right into the water with her. And there they turned into men and women. The mother remained for some time on the dike, wailed a little, and then went home.

Three years went by. The girl lived down there, and had two children, a son and a daughter. Now she often entreated her husband to let her go to see her mother. So at last one day he took her up to the surface of the water, and brought her ashore. But she asked him before leaving him, "What am I to call out when I want you?"

"Call out to me, 'Osip, Joseph Osip, come here!" and I will come," he replied.

Then he dived under water again, and she went to her mother's carrying her
little girl on one arm, and leading her boy by the hand. Out came her mother to
meet her. She was so delighted to see her!

"Good day, mother!" said the daughter.

"Have you been doing well while you were living down there?" asked her mother.

"Very well indeed, mother. My life there is better than yours here." They sat down for a bit and chatted. Her mother got dinner ready for her, and she dined. "What's your husband's name?" asked her mother.

"Osip," she replied.

"And how are you to get home?"

"I shall go to the dike, and call out, 'Osip, Osip, come here!' and he'll come."

"Lie down, daughter, and rest a bit," said the mother.

So the daughter lay down and went to sleep. The mother immediately took an axe and sharpened it, and went down to the dike with it. And when she came to the dike, she began calling out, "Osip, Osip, come here!"

No sooner had Osip shown his head than the old woman lifted her axe and chopped it off. And the water in the pond became dark with blood.

The old woman went home. And when she got home her daughter awoke. "Ah! mother," says she, "I'm getting tired of being here; I'll go home."

"Do sleep here tonight, daughter; perhaps you won't have another chance of being with me."

So the daughter stayed and spent the night there. In the morning she got up and her mother got breakfast ready for her; she breakfasted, and then she said good-bye to her mother and went away, carrying her little girl in her arms, while her boy followed behind her. She came to the dike, and called out, "Osip, Osip, come here!"

She called and called, but he did not come. Then she looked into the water, and there she saw a head floating about. Then she guessed what had happened.

"Alas! My mother has killed him!" she cried.

There on the bank she wept and wailed. And then to her girl she cried, "Fly about as a wren, henceforth and evermore!"

And to her boy she cried, "Fly about as a nightingale, my boy, henceforth and evermore!"

"But I," she said, "will fly about as a cuckoo, crying 'Cuckoo!' henceforth and evermore!"

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